Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Sound advice

Now we have surround sound and I’m sure some have THX for the home, but for many years TV sound came out of little speakers. The fidelity was not great. But in those days who knew the difference? Did anyone ever say, “Gilligan sounds a little tinny tonight, doesn’t he?”

Of course we also listened to music on AM radio – in mono, compressed, with occasional static – and at the time it never bothered anybody. FM was also available during that period but largely ignored. You would think that once people got hip to the existence of FM and its way better fidelity in stereo that there would be a mad rush to the FM dial. But it took years for FM to overtake AM.

So television audio continued to squeak out of little grills for way more years than it needed to.

When I was a disc jockey on AM radio I always had a choice. I could listen on my headphones to the output of the board or a radio, which gave me an accurate account of how it really sounded. Needless to say, what was being sent to the transmitter sounded way better. Crystal clear. The “radio” signal contained all the processing, squashed sound, etc.

I always listened to the on-air monitor. I always wanted to hear exactly what the listeners heard. Sometimes the mix of voice over the music was different once it left the transmitter. But again, I wanted to hear what it sounded like in Reseda. So the Sav-On Drug Store commercials didn’t sound as good. It was a price I was willing to pay.

But when I became a TV showrunner in the ‘80s and would go in for the final mix of a show I would drive the sound people crazy because I insisted we mix it down based on a transistor radio speaker. Meanwhile, they had these gorgeous hanging speakers and control boards with 567 channels, all with EQ and special effect capability. You can’t believe how great things sounded on those mega speakers. But that’s not what the viewer would hear. So I mixed the show on a speaker similar to the one on their 15” Sony Trinatron portable.

That’s also how I mixed opening theme songs (back when there WERE opening theme songs).

If I were overseeing a final mix today I would not use a small speaker. But I would make sure ALL the dialog is heard. There’s a lot of mumbling on TV shows now. And just as I would in the ‘old days,” I would make sure the audience heard the dialogue loud and clear. And if that meant lowering the volume on the background music or the cool ambience or tropical birds then so be it.

The only thing important is what the AUDIENCE hears. Technology has changed, but that hasn’t. If you need Closed Captions to watch a show in English there’s something seriously wrong.

46 comments :

Matt in Rhode Island said...

My sister and brother-in-law are big fans of NCIS. They stream episodes constantly - Netflix, I believe. Anyway, whenever I head out to their house in Hyannis, I always walk into NCIS streaming away - with the Closed Captioning turned on. I know that their hearing is fine - his hearing can be particularly good. And their house is quiet, as the kids have grown and moved out.

So I never realized it before, but it must come down to the mix! Mind you, I have terrible hearing, so I lose lots of dialogue in TV shows - but I figured that was just me and my lousy ears. Maybe NCIS is just one of those shows with a less than stellar audio mix.

You can't blame Mark Harmon - his diction was flawless in Summer School!

ODJennings said...

Not just sound, there should also be a rule that whoever does the picture be required to do it on a 42" television from Wal-Mart that's connected to basic cable.

Yes, I'm talking about you, HBO and Game of Thrones. I'm sure it looks great on your HiDef monitors, but by the time it gets to Spectrum in Topeka the night scenes are damn near unwatchable.

Janet Ybarra said...

Neat story. And, of course, what came out of those little TV speakers was for years mono as well. The switch to stereo-based TV didn't occur until what? The mid to late '80s?

We watch the old game show SALE OF THE CENTURY a lot. They often offered what was then the latest in TV technology and it's kind of funny to see what even really good models then were compared to what we have today.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

This approach was pretty much standard among music producers at that time. When I made my record, in 1980, we listened to the mix on both the big speakers (to pick up small errors and artifacts) and on tiny ones intended to emulate listening in someone's car. We tried to find a balance for both approaches.

wg

KLA 83 said...

Today's blog gives me a chance to bitch about the show with worst sound on TV: ELEMENTARY, the modern Sherlock Holmes program on CBS.

The sound levels are all over the place and when star Johnny Lee Miller goes reflective or apologetic or into deep thought, he almost whispers. The volume goes with him, the dialogue disappears and the viewer is left to become a detective and deduce what he is saying. I know I'm old and the hearing is not what it was, but the speeches are beyond the ability of my Samsung to recover at any setting.

Janet Ybarra said...

Ken, I think Tv audiences everywhere thank you for putting their experience foremost.

But thinking about people who have fancy THX, etc., capability with their TVs. Perhaps they are film buffs and then that makes sense.

But do you really need super high-def audio to watch and enjoy this week's episode of THE BIG BANG THEORY?

Just something I wonder about....

Pat Reeder said...

Ray Charles used to mix all his albums by flipping back and forth between the studio speakers and a crappy set of little speakers, because he figured that was how most people would hear his music.

My wife has hearing loss in one ear due to treatment for Meniere's disease, so we often have to have closed-captions on. But even before she lost her hearing, she did that because she just can't understand all the mumbling actors, particularly in movies, where directors strive for "authenticity" by mixing in every sound effect imaginable (I recall "Heaven's Gate" being the first film specifically singled out for being unintelligible due to all the squeaky wagon wheels, howling wind, horses' hooves, etc.)

Personally, my benchmark for this was "Raging Bull." Between DeNiro and Pesci mumbling and squawking on top of each other in thick Brooklyn/Italian mook accents, the only word of dialogue I understood in that entire film was the F-word. Fortunately, it made up about 25% of the script, so I got the idea.

McAlvie said...

It's one thing if it's a difference between good and bad. But I've encountered a few people over the years who are obsessive about sound quality. I confess I can rarely tell the difference myself. Sometimes I've wondered if they would know the difference in a blind test.

Ken, I'll applaud your insistence on playing to the greater audience. For a lot of people, those nuances won't register, and for some people it might even result in a poorer experience.

VP81955 said...

Thoughtful, as usual. Makes one wonder what it was like in the early days of talking pictures, when sound was being refined on the fly. Perhaps there were actual incidents similar to those parodied in "Singin' In The Rain," where a slip-up on the soundtrack caused William Powell's urbane, mellifluous voice to come from the mouth of some Paramount starlet.

Janet Ybarra said...

Speaking of sound levels all over the place, let me mention a pet peeve, and that is hiking the sound for the commercials. I know full well *why* they do it... It is still mightily annoying.

Mark said...

I’ve had countless friends brag and boast about how great their sound systems were. Me, I always referred to those two tiny openings on the side of my head....it still has to come through there.

Rock Golf said...

Yes! I agree completely, and would like to add to it that the same should apply to how a show LOOKS!
I'm sure that a program like The Handmaid's Tale (one of MANY examples, but a praticularly egregious one) must look incredible when it's viewed on a dark room where the screen is the only source of light.
Those candlelit rooms, or even darker must be a true challenge to cinematographers and Emmy-award deserving.
But most people are trying to watch these shows in a reasonably well-lit room. and no matter how good your TV or monitor is, it cannot complete with daylight. Or even a decent energy-efficient light bulb.
The result is the average user is looking at an almost completely black screen, with maybe a yellowish flare from the on-screen light source. I can't tell who's on screen, or what they're doing.

I may as well be listening to radio.

Producers & cinematographers: Use the same rule of thumb and and view these darkened scenes in normal light. If you can't see anything, turn on a damn light!

Baylink. said...

Ah... Auratones.

Marv said...

I was just about to write about the terrible sound in Elementary where everyone whispers when I saw KLA’s comment. 100% agree. Thank God for closed caption.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

I first learned this from Rich Brother Robbin, the PD of K-BEST 95 in San Diego, back in the 90's. Today, I sit in the forests of western Oregon creating pristine audio for clients throughout the world. Technology roars ahead but I've never forgotten that lesson. It's the audience that counts; not the producer. (Check out www.richbroradio.com )

Cliff said...

I often have a bit of trouble with some shows where the actors zoom a joke at such a rapid speed, that I can miss the punch line. One frequent example of the Bernedette character on The Big Band Theory superspeed quipping a quick retort to another actors comment. None times out of ten, I either miss it or have to hit the rewind on the DVR if I want to hear what the audiance was laughing at.
Cliff

estiv said...

Excellent point, but there's another technical detail to add: sound mixed for 5.1 systems. I first noticed this several years ago when I house-sat for some friends who had a 5.1 system. Watching an NFL game, I could tell that the announcers were in the front speakers and the constant crowd noise was in the back speakers. It was easy to understand what the announcers were saying. When I was back home, the announcers and the crowd noise came from the same speakers, and it was sometimes hard to understand the announcers. I'm willing to bet that at least some of the mumbling that commenters here are talking about is easier to follow in 5.1.

Earl Boebert said...

We watch everything with CC on, for all the reasons given here -- plus we love UK mysteries and CC helps us cope with the accents, as well as making easier to remember everybody's name. An extra degree of amusement comes from the captioning of the music, so you get "Mournful Saxophone Theme" or "Choppy Violin Music." One caption writer even recognized a Theremin. But the best was an Agatha Christie dramatization, country house, musical comedy being worked out, multiple personality conflicts. The composer character sits down at a piano and starts to play. The caption read: "Crummy Jazz Riff."

Critics are everywhere.

blinky said...

I have been catching up on The Preacher and I have to have the subtitles up all the time.

Roseann said...

I worked in Episodic TV on the streets of NYC when the sound man could call a cut if a bus or airplane went by and he could even ask for another take because the dialogue overlapped.
I do believe that Law and Order changed all of that-if it was on film it was good enough. And certainly that's not the case.I have reverted to CC ALL THE TIME. Old ears and lousy sound mixes on shows. Particulary egregious is DANCING WITH THE STARS. The volume on the crowd is so loud one cannot hear the presenters. It really bugs me. I've tweeted at Bergeron and DWTS to no avail.

jfancherla said...

Those "crappy" little speakers were usually auratones which were not crappy at all. They were very good quality and not inexpensive but served the purpose of providing that sound similar to your car radio or TV speaker.

There are many things that can happen in the distribution chain that can make very well mixed audio sound unintelligible at home. The most common is stereo phase where one channel becomes inverted due to miswiring or poor studio design. Now with Dolby encoding (AC3-5 channels) on many shows the problem can get worse. I observed that for many months ABC7 in LA had this problem on Jeopardy. I'm sure the audio sounded great in the mix room but by the time it got to me, the stereo was out of phase and as a result I had to turn the volume way up to compensate. Needless to say, when it went to commercial we were blasted out of the room. ABC had a crossed wire somewhere when the net feed went to the local internet feed.

As to the other bitch thread, I am currently working on the Game of Thrones dark scene problem. Now with the addition of High Dynamic Range displays the problem has gotten more complicated. Back when everybody had CRTs (cathode ray tubes) the local brightness was fixed around 100 nits. Its a real unit look it up. When we were making the TV version we used a 100 nit display and dim surround to simulate the at home experience. Now the consumer has a mix of everything from 100 to 1,000 nit displays ( 10 times brighter ) and watches in a darkened media room or outside. It is impossible to produce a single version of the material that will look the same under all those viewing conditions. You can now buy LEDs to illuminate the wall behind the TV to a selectable brightness level and some TVs (Philips) come with this built in. We have spent a large amount of time investigating the effect of surround brightness level on image perception. My opinion is that until the display has some sense of what its surrounding environment is like and is able to compensate for this in the image rendering the GoT problem will persist.

Tom said...

It's said Brian Wilson would take cassettes of Beach Boys songs in progress and drive around listening to them in his car, since that's how most people were listening to his music in the first place; it had to sound good in the car before he was happy with it. Of course his deafness in one ear made it impossible for him to hear stereo, which is apparently one reason why the classic Beach Boys songs were also in mono. Those turned out OK, I'd say.

John Hammes said...

Seems that until circa 1980 (satellites and all), wasn't network television using some sort of telephone/land line/ some-such system for national distribution? The resulting telco audio had a very distinct sound, somewhat compressed sound with vague white noise/whistling droning in the background - vague enough not to drive the viewer to distraction, but constantly there none the less.

Probably one explanation why the Charley Douglass laugh track was in use for so long. Even at the time the laughs were very, very familiar. Still, the compressed telco audio allowed the Douglass laugh and applause track something of a "fuller" sound, "fuller" being relative here. And, for twenty years, wasn't that applause track the same, singular loop, always ending with those two or three claps? Given his success and wealth, one might think Douglass (rest his soul) would have at the least sprung for a second applause track? After all, twenty years is a long time.

Tom said...

I've recently been watching Bridget & Eamon via Amazon Prime; it's an Eire import so we've had the subtitles on because my wife has a lot of difficulty with the accents, though they're relatively soft. It's even a joke in the show that the characters have difficulty understanding Northern Irish accents for being too harsh.

That being established, the subtitles are dreadful. I'm pretty sure they must be computer-generated; half the time it's not-for-profit homonyms at least (the French city of Nice substituting for the Irish city of Naas most often), and occasionally the machine just gives up and labels perfectly-audible dialogue as inaudible or 'mumbles'. If I were Irish I might be offended.

So, I guess I'm saying: streaming services offer another incentive to get the audio mix correct via awful subtitling.

John Nixon said...

I believe that quality audio is quickly becoming a thing of the past. The majority of the attention during production is going to how it looks and not so much how it sounds. I remember laying in the dark in my room listening to records when I was younger. The sound alone would fill your head with pictures and emotions. Firesign Theater took 'audio theatrics' to the next level and was great fun to listen to.

You're right, there are a lot of TV shows and movies where you can't hear the dialogue clearly. Maybe the actors are also paying less attention to projecting and enunciating their lines and more to how they look. It probably also doesn't help that they're holding a boom microphone 4 feet over the actor's heads.

Jfancherl knows what he/she's talking about. Things like 'out-of-phase' were understood by more people back when records and tapes were being played over the air and when there were still people listening in mono. I work in radio and recently there was a commercial playing that was obviously out of phase. We no longer have a phase reverse button so I couldn't fix it. We don't even have a board...it's all software and I no longer know how to reverse the phase. Plus it was someone else's work and I would get 'the fisheye' if I messed with it. The other production people have no idea what 'out of phase' is. People thought I didn't know what I was talking about and that it was a digital effect of some kind added to the sound on purpose. So the obviously out of phase, horrible sounding commercial played for a month or more, the center audio disappeared when it did and nobody cared. I suspect that there are similar situations going on throughout radio and TV. Quality audio is quickly becoming a lost art.

Mike McCann said...

Ken,

This may be the first time you've ever been compared to Berry Gordy, but bear me out. During Motown's 1960s heyday, he was famously known for auditioning singles being considered for release on a speaker rescued from an old car's dashboard. Again, much like you, he wanted to hear the songs the way the public would in the real world -- on a very ordinary car radio.

Peter said...

When I watch something on Netflix, I know that at least four or five times during the show I'll need to pause to turn on CC. Mumbled dialogue seems to be fashionable. Hannibal and Seven Seconds were especially guilty of this.

I read an interview with Michael Jackson's studio engineer who said that Michael always mixed his songs on tiny speakers because he wanted it to sound just as good for fans who didn't have big sound systems at home. Nice guy.

Summer movies used to be perfect at having mixes that balanced dialogue, score and sound effects. Now, many of them sound like they threw the mix into a blender. Either the score drowns out the dialogue or the sound effects do.

Peter said...

Ken, on a different topic, may I recommend the Netflix documentary series The Staircase. It's gripping and brilliantly made.

Dayhew said...

I watched Monty Python's Holy Grail about 15 times before I ever watched it with subtitles. That was like watching it for the first time. I had always missed about half the jokes. I always recommend The Wire, or Game of Thrones both be watched with closed captioning. Actually anything I am really paying attention to I prefer it now. I was one of those geeks in the 80's who was always trying to figure out a way to bypass the TV speaker through my stereo. It has come a long way since then.

sumerlad said...

Speaking of CC, my favorite closed caption experience occurred when I was watching an episode of the TV Mission Impossible on DVD. A priest is saying a mass in Latin and all of it was subtitled.

Lemuel said...

Sometimes CC will censor a word it deems obscene, like "ass", substituting "xxxx", while the word itself is still spoken.
I like the CC option on UK shows like THE ROYALE FAMILY and MONTY PYTHON because it spells out dialects I wouldn't have otherwise understood.

Mike Doran said...

If you think I believe any of that, you've got another think coming!

We all grew up with that phrase.

But captioners all seem to believe that it's another THING coming.

Drives me right up the wall.

Second place:
We're giving you free rein on the project.

That's correct; when you loosen the reins on your horse, you give him free rein.

But captioners always write free reign; not the same thing at all.

And what they do to proper names could make a whole other essay.
(Humphrey Beau Guard? - that's real, by the way.)

YEKIMI said...

The "Big Bitch" I seem to hear from people is that the soundtrack [music] often drowns out the dialogue. Don't look for that to change because , I suspect, that the bands/artists want it that way so they can sell more records/CDs/downloads/streams, etc. and the public be damned. Since I am slowly going deaf I sometimes will turn on the caption function. Don't have much problem with English/Irish accents [maybe because of long dead English/Irish ancestors that I had no trouble understanding], I do have difficulty with Joseph Gilgun's accent on "Preacher"....but then again maybe it's my bad ears. In my radio days [and when I did my own making or mixing of "mixtapes" for friends] before it went through all the processing, I left my mixes "neutral" [not the way I liked to listen to them] because people then could either crank up the bass or treble to whatever their taste preferred. Now since my hearing range has dropped to about 5500 Hz [only 1500 more to lose before I get hearing aids!] I tend to not listen to as much music as I used to and leave the mixing, etc. to others.

Mike Bloodworth said...

One thing I learned in college was that females can hear higher frequencies than men. i.e. they hear more of the audio spectrum. That's why women are always saying, "Turn that down!" Sorry guys. Its not their imagination. It really is louder for them. And as we age we lose the higher frequencies first. That also plays a part in the difficulty of understanding dialog. As I approach sixty, I use the Closed Captions more and more. One thing I can't figure out is how they can "remix" an old mono soundtrack into a 5.1. Talk about hard to understand. If a DVD Or Blu-ray gives me the choice between "surround" or "original mono" I'll chose mono. Getting back to your original point, one of the simplest fixes to this sound problem would be treble/bass controls on the center speaker (5.1) or on the sound bar. An adjustment on the frequencies could make a huge difference. Finally, there were times when old mono sitcoms did occasionally sound "tinny." Usually it was the shot-on-tape shows such as ALL IN THE FAMILY. When a show didn't sound right I used to call it, "New York" sound.
M.B.

RF Burns said...

I have seen instances where the script of a TV show was changed and the update didn't make it to whoever was busy typing up the CC. In one case the CC had a character using an ethnic slur and the actual spoken line had been changed to something less offensive.

Ken, among so many other things in radio, the days of listening to yourself on an actual radio while being a DJ are pretty much over. Most radio stations have devices in the air chain that introduce varying amounts of delay, from half a second on up to several seconds. You could never listen to yourself live with that going on.

What we usually do is set up a special off-line headphone feed with copious amounts of compression/limiting (and sometimes reverb) so the DJs hear an approximation of what the actual air signal sounds like...or what they wish they sounded like.

Donald Benson said...

Boomer ramblings:

I remember when our family had a big 'ol living room stereo with amplifier full of tubes, receiver with big knob and footlong mechanical tuning display, delicate turntable with clear plastic cover, huge reel-to-reel tape recorder (often deployed separately with a little speaker), and two speakers big enough to double as end tables (I think Mom put doilies on them). The most dramatic stereo effect I remember was the Broadway album of "How to Succeed in Business", where a couple of songs had the singers "walking" back and forth between speakers. For proper stereo you had to be sitting in the fireplace.

At some point one of my more seriously audiophile brothers moved most of this system into his own room, and living room music was one of those woodgrain not-really-portables with speakers built onto either side of the radio and flip-out turntable. I remember the radio sounding pretty good.

I never really cottoned to headphones. As a teen I had a small portable; for serious listening I'd lie on the floor with my head between the detachable speakers. I use EarPods when out and about with the iPod; at home I always listen to speakers.

As a young bachelor I assembled some low-price units from Pacific Stereo, including two small wooden speakers and -- zowie -- a duel tape deck. Put a lot of LPs on tape for driving; didn't quite trust pre-recorded cassettes. Never really cranked the stereo up, having neighbors beside and below (the people downstairs could hear me pounding on my manual typewriter; that's what enticed me to buy an early Mac). The TV was not connected to this system, although my RCA Selectavision player allowed me to run videodisc sound through the stereo. For music I'd pile four or five LPs on the record changer; when I made the jump to CDs I got a five-disc player.

Now, a cranky old bachelor, I have a big 'ol Sony tube television bought in 2000. it's the biggest screen I've ever owned and I don't feel a need to see Lou Costello any larger. Basic Sony amplifier with functions and settings I still haven't touched, although I sometimes play with "Sound Field" ("Stadium" creates the echo I remember from near-empty theaters showing old movies); also a five-disc player that plays CDs and DVDs. Retired the VCR long ago. Down to two shelf speakers, each a few feet from the TV. Used to have two more speakers; the little guys who were supposed to be behind you on either side. One broke so I retired both, lest I end up with one overdeveloped ear.

Now, my first car only had AM-FM radio with those mechanical station buttons, but I finally got a car that included a cassette deck ... (Sound of large object breaking; body falling to floor).

Janet Ybarra said...

Try watching Bill Maher's show with the captions on...they definitely will transcribe all his F bombs right there on your screen.

Speaking of, Ken, you try to get yourself booked on REAL TIME. You would be a great guest.

flurb said...

I have a slightly different peeve: film actors (and/or their directors) whispering dialogue that's meant to be spoken to people further than two feet away. The difference is illustrated between (the great) PRIME SUSPECT, in which Helen Mirren repeatedly raises her voice to talk to a roomful of detectives, and THE FALL, in which Gillian Anderson constantly does the opposite - begging the question why her underlings aren't all cupping their ears. It's perhaps a stylistic difference between generations of actors, similar to the poker-face-from-Antarctica method that's so prevalent nowadays. But whenever, say, a TV lawyer is summing up his dramatic case in a whisper, it just pulls me out, because the actor is robbing him- or herself of the "real" feel of the scene.

A friend of mine had a day of shooting on a TV show. It was a scene around a table, and he finally had to ask one of the closer-by actors to tap his leg when the lead had finished his lines; the star was so quiet and mumbly he couldn't hear his cues.

DyHrdMET said...

I've used closed captions for programs in English before. Not often, but on occasion I've felt I needed it. I thought it was more me than the TV, or some fast-talk that I just couldn't interpret.

But I absolutely love the thought process that you applied to the audio portion of your jobs. Did you ever have to do that in your baseball broadcasting career?

JED said...

Another thing to watch for on fancy 5.1 audio systems is that the music is often on the front left and front right speakers while the voices are on the front center speaker. If you have all three at the same level, the left + right with music will overwhelm the center with the voices. Try turning up the center speaker (if you have that separate control).

Another problem that sometimes occurs with fancy speaker systems is for the wires to one of the speakers being reversed where they plug into the speaker so that the sound cancels out (opposite phases of the sound waves) with another speaker.

I had both of those problems and had to ask for help.

Matt said...

Mixing to a tiny speaker is exactly correct. I'm in radio production and I always listen to the final mix in the cue speaker before sending out the spot. Listening in cue, that is in mono, reveals whether it all mixes together. Sometimes I'll notice the music is low. Other times I'll notice the sound effects are too loud. All of this can be revealed by listening in cue.

And this leads to a Friday question:

Where was the M*A*S*H theme song recorded? I've heard it might've been recorded at Gold Star studio by the Wrecking Crew, but I've not been able to confirm this.

cadavra said...

I always have the CC on. Not just because my hearing ain't what it used to be, but often the characters speak in terminology, and seeing the words is a big help. Sometimes they also identify music cues, especially pop songs, and occasionally there's even a line of dialogue that must have been lost in the final edit. Best of all, if the sound goes out--I can still follow it!

MikeN said...

Perhaps nowadays you should insist on mixing thru a laptop with the in-built speakers. Not the HPs using Beats.

MikeN said...

Question, is it brains on Brett or Brains on Brad?

Gary West said...

The surround sound thing is garbage. You're meant to listen forward - not in the rear. Two speakers behind you - I was never a fan of.

In Surround sound - the big problem is the center channel - where we hear voices/dialogue. So much of it is hard to hear - especially lower passages. It's a constant problem.

I solved it by going to my guitar store (picking-up strings for my accoustic) and buying a $100.00 compressor. I put it between the amp center channel out and center speaker. Works great. No more lost voices. Who cares if they're almost the same level - you can hear them. Try it! Problem solved. I love being a geek.

Graeme said...

I still do what you do when mixing for the podcasts I produce. I edit it with really good headphones in Adobe Creative Suite, but when mixing I first listen to it with my crappier headphones playing it off my phone (and if I can do it where there's white noise like on a commuter bus all the better.) You get a much better sense of what's right and what's wrong that way I find.